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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XIX No. 3 Michaelmas 2004
Celebrating 20 Years - 1984-2004

New Perspectives
on Paragraph 5 in the "Affirmation for Catholic Women"
Reviewing the "Fundamental Reasons"

by Sister Sara Butler, MSBT

Editor's Note:
We are pleased to have Sister Sara Butler's essay on the subject of ordination to the priesthood. The Church's constant traditions of ordaining only men became one of the most controversial Church issues of the last three decades of the 20th Century.

The Affirmation for Catholic Women first appeared in 1984 as a response to the US Bishops' Committee on Women (BCOW), who had launched an effort to write a pastoral letter on "women's concerns". Sister Sara was a consultant to the BCOW from 1984-1992, when the bishops voted not to issue a pastoral letter. (The document, "One in Christ Jesus" was issued as a committee report).

During the years of this effort, two key papal documents appeared: Mulieris Dignitatem (1988) on the dignity and vocation of women, and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994) on the ordained priesthood, that were directly relevant to the topic, as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (English version, 1994.)

It should be remembered, also, that the Affirmation for Catholic Women was issued ten years before either Ordinatio Sacerdotalis or the Catechism, and four years before Mulieris Dignitatem. At the time the Affirmation first appeared, it was widely claimed that there were "no theological reasons" to support the Church's teaching restricting priesthood to men.

Sister Sara's article notes this historical context (and also that Affirmation Item 5 followed several other paragraphs on women's nature/roles). The Affirmation was never intended as a teaching document or theological treatise, but as a sort of "manifesto" expressing fidelity to the Church.

Two subsequent statements, however - the "Statement on Feminism, Language and Liturgy" (1989/95) and on Ordinatio Sacerdotalis issued May 30, 1994 - reflect both Vatican documents as well as the Catechism in the sections on ordination. Excerpts from these statements appear as sidebars in this article.

Much ink has been spilled on the question of the ordination of women (or, to put it another way, the reservation of priestly ordination to men) since Women for Faith & Family began twenty years ago. And many events have shaped the development of a debate that continues to agitate popular opinion in the Church and baffle many ordinary Americans. The most striking event in this controversy was undoubtedly the unanticipated intervention of Pope John Paul II ten years ago. In the apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, dated May 22, 1994 (the feast of Pentecost),1 the pope affirmed "the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women", and declared that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Catholic faithful. In a very concise and formal document he gave the reasons for his judgment, and indicated -- quite briefly -- why it should not be understood to detract in any way from the equal dignity of women with men.

It will be of interest to readers of Voices to notice how the argumentation of this apostolic letter compares with paragraph 5 of the Affirmation for Catholic Women. What issues have come to the fore since the time the latter was written, and how might Catholic women attempt to explain and defend their conviction about this today? We might recall that the Affirmation was originally drawn up as part of the response to an initiative of the US Catholic bishops to prepare a Pastoral Letter on Women's Concerns. Given the political climate in the Church at the time (1984), Helen Hull Hitchcock and her colleagues recognized the real danger that the voices of many faithful Catholic women (the "silent majority") would not be heard. Catholic women who thought fidelity to the Gospel required change -- in particular, the admission of women to Holy Orders -- were quite naturally more highly motivated to participate in the bishops' consultation process than women who did not. The Affirmation for Catholic Women was provided as a means by which women who were not pressing for change could give public witness to their faith convictions on this and a whole range of "women's concerns".

Paragraph 5 of the Affirmation is situated, therefore, within the context of many other affirmations related to the status of women, their proper nature, their commitment to life and to the Church's teachings on marriage and reproduction. It is not surprising, then, that it addresses the question of women's ordination in terms of these other convictions. Let us recall the text:

We therefore also reject as an aberrant innovation peculiar to our times and our society the notion that priesthood is the "right" of any human being, male or female. Furthermore, we recognize that the specific role of ordained priesthood is intrinsically connected with and representative of the begetting creativity of God in which only human males can participate. Human females, who by nature share in the creativity of God by their capacity to bring forth new life, and, reflective of this essential distinction, have a different and distinct role within the Church and in society from that accorded to men, can no more be priests than men can be mothers.

Notice that this paragraph offers two arguments for rejecting the ordination of women: first, that the priesthood is not a "right"; and second, that the priest's role can be fulfilled only by a man because it "is intrinsically connected with and representative of" God's "begetting creativity". This second argument is then illustrated by means of a comparison based on the same logic: women "can no more be priests than men can be mothers". Both explanations are rooted in the Catholic doctrine of the priesthood.

By asserting that ordination is not the subject of a "right" for anyone -- man or woman -- the first argument recalls the nature of the priesthood as a vocation from God, not simply a leadership role to which one might aspire on the basis of proven competence. The second argument, by referring to the priest's representative role, recalls that the priesthood is a sacrament, and therefore it involves an outward sign; the priest himself is seen to participate in the sign. The second argument also draws on "theological anthropology" -- the doctrine of the human person -- to make its case. It interprets the priest's representative function in terms of an analogy with God's creative action, and appeals to the difference between human begetting and birthing -- between fatherhood and motherhood -- to support the view that the priest has a uniquely masculine role.

Neither of the two arguments advanced by the Affirmation is found among the "fundamental reasons" for the Church's tradition set out either by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Declaration Inter insigniores (1976)2 or in the more recent and definitive teaching of Pope John Paul II in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Although the first finds a place in Inter insigniores, it is included among the "theological arguments" in the second half of that document. The second one, likewise, is related to one of the "theological arguments" insofar as it appeals to the masculinity of the priest as included, in some way, in the sacramental sign. And, although both documents of the Magisterium make reference to the sign value of sexual difference, neither one directly invokes the begetting/birthing analogy found in the Affirmation.

If the Magisterium does not use these arguments, what reasons does it give? In this short article, I propose to set out the "fundamental reasons" given in the papal letter and other documents of the Magisterium, and then to suggest how the arguments from the Affirmation might be related to these. In my opinion it is vitally important to observe the distinction, introduced in Inter insigniores, between the "fundamental reasons" for the Church's tradition -- which is a tradition of doctrine and not simply of discipline -- and the "theological arguments" that are supplied to illustrate its "fittingness".3 Failure to notice the difference continues to plague the discussion of this question. Most objections to the Church's teaching on this topic take aim at the supposed inadequacies of the "theological arguments". According to the Magisterium, however, these arguments -- taken by themselves -- do not account for its judgment; they are offered only to illuminate how this tradition of doctrine and practice is seen to be harmonious with other elements in the divine plan. The objections, therefore, do not reach their real target. The weakness of the objections is that they do not reach to the Church's primary reasons for its teachings; they touch only on the considerations the Church puts forward to show that its reasons are consistent with its overall "theological anthropology". The weakness of the Affirmation, however, is precisely the same, that it does not cite the Magisterium's "fundamental reasons". While it surely presupposes those reasons, it in fact only mentions secondly "theological arguments". The arguments are not persuasive apart from the reasons. Just as objections to those same arguments without reference to its reasons cannot disprove the Church's teaching, likewise appeal to the arguments apart from the reasons cannot establish it. What are decisive for the Magisterium are precisely the "fundamental reasons".

Preliminary Considerations
Even before we inquire about the "fundamental reasons", it is crucial to frame the question properly and to establish the correct starting point. In the opening statement of the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II asserts that "from the beginning" priestly ordination "has always been reserved to men alone" in the Catholic Church. Then, in a compact definition, he specifies what he means by "priestly ordination": ordination to the priesthood "hands on the office entrusted by Christ to His apostles of teaching, sanctifying, and governing the faithful". By saying this, he recalls the Church's faith -- confidently proposed by the Second Vatican Council4 -- that the ministerial priesthood has its origin in Christ, is passed on through the apostles and their successors, and confers on the person ordained the authority to carry on Christ's threefold ministry with respect to the faithful. According to the pope, then, the proper starting point for a consideration of this issue is a tradition and doctrine of the priesthood that involves the Lord Jesus, the Twelve, and their successors.

We may also note that this doctrine of priesthood characterizes the Catholic judgment -- by contrast with that of the heirs of the Reformation -- on the possibility of ordaining women.5 For Catholics, the answer to the question "Why men only?" is bound up with the conviction -- a matter of faith -- that Holy Orders is a sacrament instituted by Christ, and that His intention for the priesthood is known by way of the mission He gave the Twelve. If the Church does not have the authority to change her tradition or practice, it is because this ministry is a gift "entrusted to the apostles" by the Lord -- a gift that she feels bound to preserve.

This teaching regarding the priesthood is not a new doctrine,6 and the reservation of priestly ordination to men is not a new practice. Prior to the current controversy, the Catholic Church had observed this tradition so firmly for centuries that there seemed no need to define it.7 The explanation given today has, however, a rather new focus -- a focus that corresponds, in fact, to the challenge put in our time. To those who contend that this traditional practice must be changed because (to take one example) it is no more than an unexamined way of doing things based on an outdated and faulty estimation of women, the pope replies: the Church is not free -- does not have the authority -- to change this practice because it is rooted in the will of Christ. This conviction has been "preserved" in the tradition, but (he acknowledges) it has been "firmly taught by the Magisterium" only in its "more recent documents" (art. 4), indeed, in documents from the past thirty years.

"Fundamental Reasons" for Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men
The first document cited by Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is a letter Pope Paul VI wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Right Reverend F. Donald Coggan, in response to a request for "ecumenical counsel" regarding developments favoring the ordination of women in the Anglican Communion. In his response of July 1975, the pope identifies the "very fundamental reasons" that underlie the Catholic position that this is not admissible. The reasons include these three: Christ's example of choosing only men as apostles (the argument from Scripture); the Church's constant practice of choosing only men, in imitation of the Lord (the argument from tradition); and the consistent teaching that this pattern is "in accordance with God's plan for His Church" (the witness of the Magisterium). Pope Paul simply states the reasons; he does not lay out evidence or supply a theological argument for them.

A little more than one year later, in response not only to developments in the Anglican Communion but to the escalating debate in Catholic circles, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued the Declaration Inter insigniores (On the Question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood). Reviewing this in Ordinatio sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II cites only the conclusion, namely, that the Church "does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination".8 He notes, however, that Inter insigniores explains the "fundamental reasons" that underlie this teaching, and also adds "theological reasons which illustrate the appropriateness of the divine provision". In addition, the pope calls attention to the Declaration's assertion that "Christ's way of acting did not proceed from sociological or cultural motives peculiar to His time". He then quotes Pope Paul VI's pithy summary of this Declaration (from an Angelus address of January 30, 1977): "The real reason is that, in giving the Church her fundamental constitution, her theological anthropology -- thereafter always followed by the Church's tradition -- Christ established things in this way".

Although the apostolic letter of Pope John Paul II does not rehearse the "fundamental reasons" from Inter insigniores (arts. 1-4), it is useful for our purposes to do so. The Declaration first appeals to the tradition of sacramental practice: there is an unbroken, universal tradition, common to East and West, of admitting only men to ministerial priesthood. Next, it traces this tradition to the example of Jesus who chose only men to belong to the Twelve. Third, it appeals to the practice of the apostles, who are presumed to be faithful to the Lord's will. Finally, it asserts that this tradition remains normative for the Church.

Regarding (1) the Church's constant tradition, the Declaration takes note of three types of evidence from the patristic age: condemnations of heretical sects that admitted women to priestly functions, writings of the Fathers (which sometimes reveal the prejudices of their times regarding women), and canonical documents that identify as the "essential reason" for the tradition the example of the Lord and of the apostles. This same reason is said to guide the efforts of medieval theologians, even if they present some arguments that are "scarcely defensible" today.9 The tradition has remained so firm, in both East and West, as to require no intervention on the part of the Magisterium.

Regarding (2) Christ's "way of acting" (viz., His choice of men and not women for the fellowship of the Twelve), the Declaration reviews the Gospel evidence and concludes that the Lord was not constrained by sociological or cultural motives. It considers His evident freedom to break with the customs of the time in His dealings and association with women, and finds that "a number of convergent indications" support this judgment. It then recalls a traditional argument to the effect that the Lord's will for women is evident in the fact that He did not entrust even His Mother with the apostolic charge.10

Regarding (3) the practice of the apostles, the Declaration reports that they faithfully followed Christ's example of calling only men -- despite the generous collaboration of women in the spread of the Gospel -- when they chose fellow workers to assist and succeed themselves in the apostolic ministry.

Finally, regarding (4) the normative character of the Church's tradition, the Declaration evaluates and answers three possible objections (the influence of the social milieu, the Pauline prescriptions,11 and the Church's jurisdiction over the sacraments). It then recalls that the sacraments are signs that correspond to "the deep symbolism of actions and things" and link believers to the unique historical events of our salvation. This "sacramental reference to constitutive events of Christianity and to Christ" sets limits to the adaptations the Church is authorized to make. Because the Church is "bound by Christ's manner of acting", this tradition of reserving priestly ordination to men is normative, for it conforms to God's plan for the Church.

As noted above, the Declaration distinguishes these "fundamental reasons" from the "theological arguments" (arts. 5-6) that it advances in support of this teaching. The latter are advanced to elucidate why the Lord's choice of men but not women is "fitting" or appropriate, and to explain why this does not constitute unjust discrimination against women.

First, there are arguments related to the mystery of Christ: these address the question of sacramental symbolism, and the related topic of the theological relevance of Jesus' maleness. The reasoning is now quite familiar. It is fitting that the priest be male because he is -- especially when he acts in persona Christi in the celebration of the Eucharist -- a sacramental sign of Christ in His Covenant relationship to the Church as Head, Shepherd, and Bridegroom. The natural symbolism of gender, the Declaration asserts, serves to make Christ visible in His ministry of salvation vis-à-vis the Church. If the maleness of Christ is theologically significant, it is because, according to God's plan at creation, the sexes are different -- not because men are superior to women.

Second, there are arguments related to the mystery of the Church. These address the nature of the Church and the equality of the baptized. The Church is not like other societies, but is original in her nature and structure. The true equality of the baptized is celebrated in -- not cancelled out by -- a diversity of ministries, for the Church is an internally-differentiated body in which the Spirit's many gifts contribute to the good of the whole. Equality, in any case, is not identity.

Ordinatio Sacerdotalis does not appeal to the "theological arguments" of the Declaration. It does not refer, for example, to the nuptial symbolism -- the priest as "sacrament" of Christ the Bridegroom vis-à-vis the Church as Bride -- invoked by the Declaration. This does not mean that the symbolism in it is unimportant. (In other teaching documents, the pope clearly relies on it to elucidate the meaningfulness of reserving the priesthood to men.12) It does mean, however, that this symbolism does not provide the ultimate foundation for the Church's doctrine and practice. The focus of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, instead, remains squarely on the "fundamental reasons" that engage the authority of the Magisterium, namely, the arguments from Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium.

Elaboration of the "Fundamental Reasons"
Does Pope John Paul II contribute anything new to the explanation given in Inter insigniores in his apostolic letter of 1994? Yes, he does. As noted above, he first recalls his own earlier reaffirmation (in Mulieris Dignitatem, art. 26) of Christ's "sovereign" freedom in "calling only men as His apostles". If one grants that the Lord freely broke with the customs, traditions, and laws of His time in relating to women, one can hardly maintain that He excluded women from apostolic ministry as a concession to those same cultural norms. Freedom in the one case argues for freedom in the other.

Next, the pope adds an important paragraph, based on scriptural evidence and grounded in the teaching of Vatican II, which explicates more fully certain facets of the "fundamental reasons".13 Jesus' free choice of the Twelve, he notes, was made after prayer. Drawing together several New Testament references to highlight the Trinitarian aspect of this event, he asserts that the Son chose "those whom He willed" in union with the Father "through the Holy Spirit". Because this choice reflects "God's eternal plan", it cannot be dismissed as an historically-conditioned decision open to subsequent development. The Church has always recognized that the Lord's example in choosing the men who became the foundation of the Church (cf. Rev 21:4) provides a perennial norm in the matter of admitting candidates to the ministerial priesthood. The consequences of this choice are then explained: these twelve men were not simply given a function that any member of the Church might later fulfill. Rather, they were drawn into a specific and intimate association with Christ; they were given the "mission of representing Christ the Lord and Redeemer". They, those fellow workers to whom they would entrust this ministry, and all who carry on the apostles' mission were included -- the pope teaches -- in this choice.

The citations from Lumen Gentium 20 and 21 link the call of the Twelve with the vocation to the episcopal office, and supply evidence of the Church's ongoing belief that bishops are called to "take the place of Christ Himself, teacher, shepherd and priest, and act as His representatives". (LG 21) They also recall the link between the apostolic college and the episcopal college. As a footnote to this section recalls, this connection plays an important part in the logic of the Catechism article dealing with the reservation of the ministerial priesthood to men: "The Lord Jesus chose men (viri) to form the college of the twelve apostles, and the apostles did the same when they chose collaborators to succeed them in their ministry. The college of bishops, with whom the priests are united in the priesthood, makes the college of the twelve an ever-present and ever-active reality until Christ's return". (no. 1577)

Today some read Scripture in a purely historical manner, independent of the living Tradition. When this method does not -- as it cannot -- provide irrefutable evidence that Christ Himself instituted the ministerial priesthood, they conclude that this ministry arose in response to charisms of the Spirit, to meet the need for good order. From this perspective, ordained ministry is seen to have a functional or instrumental, but not a representational value. The living Tradition, however, recognizes in the Twelve and in their apostolic ministry the normative origin of the priesthood; this ministry is, in turn, understood as the sacramental, i.e., representational, continuation of Christ's ministry in the Church.14 Ordinatio Sacerdotalis introduces a fuller consideration of this sacramental dimension into the perspective of the "fundamental reasons", making explicit what was implied in Inter insigniores: "the priestly ministry is not just a pastoral service; it ensures the continuity of the functions entrusted by Christ to the apostles and the continuity of the powers related to those functions. Adaptation to civilizations and times therefore cannot abolish, on essential points, the sacramental reference to constitutive events of Christianity and to Christ Himself". (art. 4)

Clearly, the pope's focus on the "fundamental reasons", rather than the "theological arguments" that might shed light on them, was deliberate. In October 1995, when a question ("dubium") was raised about the authoritative weight of his judgment in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith replied that this teaching belongs to the deposit of the faith and requires definitive assent "since, founded on the written Word of God and from the beginning constantly preserved and applied in the Tradition of the Church, it has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium".15 This formulation, which directly appeals to Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium, indicates that the Congregation believes this teaching to fulfill the criteria proposed by the Council of Trent for assessing whether a tradition is of divine origin. According to Trent, such teaching must have been received by the apostles either from "the mouth of Christ" or by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and must have been preserved without interruption in the Catholic Church.16 Since the reply to the dubium asserts that what the pope teaches in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (viz., that the Church does not have the authority to admit women to priestly ordination) simply reaffirms what has been set forth infallibly by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, the Congregation evidently intends to locate the traditional practice within the realm of revealed truth and to affirm its divine origin.

The Place of the "Theological Arguments"
The "theological arguments" (found in Inter insigniores and other writings of Pope John Paul II) -- drawn from the nuptial symbolism in the Scriptures and from a certain understanding of the complementary roles of the sexes -- are not reported in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, although they are certainly not repudiated. By now, the reason should be clear. The pope deliberately appeals to concrete facts: the example set by Jesus in His choice of the Twelve as His representatives and the practice of the apostolic Church continued in the Church's tradition of sacramental practice. This is the necessary starting point, because what is at issue is specific to the constitution of the Church; it belongs to divine revelation inasmuch as Holy Orders is a sacrament instituted by Christ through which His ministry continues to be exercised in the Church. As an institution, the ministerial priesthood belongs within a whole constellation of biblical stories and symbols, and it can be properly understood, as Inter insigniores claims, only with reference to the constitutive events of Christianity and to Christ Himself.

To introduce the "theological arguments" first would suggest that they could bear the whole weight of supporting the tradition -- which they are unable to do. Since these arguments rely heavily on the meaning and value to be ascribed to the difference between the sexes, they tend to be evaluated in terms of psychological, sociological, and philosophical theories that are not adequate to a theological anthropology based in Christian revelation.17 In fact, there is a notable development on the question within the Catholic doctrinal tradition itself,18 which makes it difficult for those who have not followed its progress to assess the doctrine properly. Still, it is necessary, once the "fundamental reasons" are in place, to provide some explanation of why the Lord's choice of men to the apostolic ministry is meaningful, and not purely arbitrary and therefore unfair. Many, however, do not find the explanation that has been advanced persuasive.

The logic of the Church's tradition is not evident, for example, to persons who do not share the Christian faith. They tend to interpret the "reservation of priestly ordination to men" as the unjust exclusion of women from leadership positions, and to assume that this practice is based on the judgment that women are regarded (on the basis of biblical teaching) as inferior, or subordinate, to men and thus unsuited for public leadership. This reasoning is flawed by its interpretation of the Catholic priesthood as no different from any other position of public leadership. Some who do share the Christian faith draw the same conclusion, but for other reasons: for example, because they do not regard the pastoral office as a sacrament of apostolic ministry instituted by Christ, or because they do not understand the ordained ministry to be related in an ongoing way to the call of the Twelve.

A report from the House of Bishops of the Church of England -- evaluating the possibility of admitting women to the priesthood in preparation for the historic Synod vote of 1992 -- provides an interesting illustration of this final case. The report's very thorough presentation of the arguments pro and con gives no special attention to Jesus' choice of twelve men, despite the fact that the Roman Catholic Church repeatedly identifies this as the "fundamental reason".19 It is the Lord's choice of twelve men -- a link Catholics assume to be related to the institution of Holy Orders and thus to the foundation and constitution of the Church20 -- that discloses His will for the priesthood. This choice is what moves the question from abstract speculation about appropriate roles for men and women, the theological significance of Jesus' maleness, and what is required to "represent" Him in the priesthood21 into the concrete evidence of salvation history. If this evidence is dismissed as irrelevant, the Church's practice must be defended on some other basis, e.g., an argument from the maleness of Christ or on the nature of God, in conjunction with some understanding of gender complementarity. In other words, one must rely on "theological arguments" that, in the end, can illuminate but not establish the Church's tradition.

Turning back to the Affirmation for Catholic Women, we can now observe that the appeal in paragraph 5 to the priesthood as "connected with and representative of the begetting creativity of God in which only males can participate" relies on this sort of "theological argument". As noted above, in the context of the Affirmation as a whole, this approach is understandable; in fact, the argument itself has merit.22 Because it fails to link the priesthood directly to the representation of Jesus Christ and to His institution of the apostolic ministry in the choice of the Twelve, however, it remains detached from a specific reference to the sacrament of Holy Orders.

Isolated from these concrete premises, this appeal is quite difficult to defend. It relies on a multi-step process of theological reasoning based on the analogy of faith and on an understanding of sexual complementarity that takes into account the personal meaning Catholic teaching attaches to fatherhood and motherhood; for these reasons it is vulnerable to a whole series of feminist objections. For example, some Christian theologians today argue that the nature of God and the person of the Risen Christ require feminine as well as masculine "representation", and that an all-male priesthood is a counter-sign to the truth of the Gospel. Some question the value, and even the fact (!) -- of the difference between the sexes; they reject the "binary gender system" as the source of unjust discrimination against women.23 While it is possible to answer these objections,24 it requires a rather thorough acquaintance with the content and method of Catholic theology.

The Catholic who wants to respond with confidence to questions about the Church's judgment on reserving priestly ordination to men will do best to (1) study Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, especially the carefully-constructed article 3, (2) review articles 5 and 6 of Inter insigniores and articles 26 and 27 of Mulieris Dignitatem, and then (3) study the new document on "Collaboration of Men and Women"25 that summarizes the pope's teaching on the "theology of the body". As the latter document makes clear, explaining the force and logic of the "theological arguments" is rendered complex today by the widespread repudiation of the complementarity of the sexes -- referred to by some as "gender feminism". Catholic women who have signed the Affirmation are well aware of this phenomenon, and are probably already familiar with the "theology of the body". This article intends to urge that the most effective response to the women's ordination question will take the Catholic doctrine of the priesthood as its starting point and foundation, and will employ arguments based on theological anthropology only after that is established, giving preference to those directly related to the biblical evidence regarding Christ's relationship to the Church in the New Covenant purchased by His blood.


1 For the texts on the ordination of women cited here, plus many valuable essays, see Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, From Inter insigniores to Ordinatio Sacerdotalis: Documents and Commentaries. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1996).

2 Declaration Regarding the Question of the Admission of Women to Ministerial Priesthood (October 15, 1976).

3 I will call attention to this distinction by enclosing the terms in quotation marks. See Inter insigniores, art. 5: "Having recalled the Church's norm and the basis thereof [the "fundamental reasons"], it seems useful and opportune to illustrate this norm by showing the profound fittingness that theological reflection discovers [in the nature of the sacrament, the mystery of Christ, and an exclusively male priesthood]. It is not a question here of bringing forward a demonstrative argument, but of clarifying this teaching by the analogy of faith". The "argument from fittingness", or convenientia, is well-established in the Catholic theological tradition.

4 N.B. See Lumen Gentium, arts. 18-21, 28 and Presbyterorum Ordinis, art. 2.

5 In early discussions of this topic among Protestants, Anglicans, and Orthodox, the difference between the Protestant "minister" and the Catholic "priest" was more sharply defined. See Kathleen Bliss, The Service and Status of Women in the Churches (London: S.C.M. Press, 1952), 136.

6 In addition to the Second Vatican Council, see the Council of Trent, Sess. XXIII (1563) [DS 1763-78] and Pius XII, Mediator Dei (1947) and Sacramentum Ordinis (1947) [DS 3857-61].

7 See Inter Insigniores, art. 1. "The Church's tradition in the matter has thus far been so firm in the course of the centuries that the Magisterium has not felt the need to intervene in order to formulate a principle which was not attacked, or to defend a law which was not challenged". In the 1917 code, canon 968; in the 1983 code, canon 1024.

8 Inter Insigniores, introduction.

9 Here, in note 9, the Declaration distances itself from medieval "theological arguments" that rely on the view that women are inferior to men and unable to "signify eminence". The [unofficial] commentary on the Declaration spells this out more fully.

10 It is significant that this argument, which dates to the fourth century, contrasts Mary and the Twelve; this underlines the identification of the Twelve and the priestly ministry.

11 The reference is to the significance for this question of I Cor 11:2-16, I Cor 14:34-35, and I Tim 2:12.

12 See Mulieris Dignitatem, arts. 26-27; Pastores Dabo Vobis, arts. 21-23.

13 Paragraph 1 of art. 3. In subsequent paragraphs he explains that the Church's practice does not imply that women have less dignity than men and reaffirms the specific value of women's contribution to the Church's life and holiness.

14 Christifidelis laici (art. 22) calls the special charism of the Holy Spirit the gift of the Risen Christ: "The ministries receive the charism of the Holy Spirit from the Risen Christ, in uninterrupted succession from the apostles, through the Sacrament of Orders; from Him they receive the authority and sacred power to serve the Church, acting in persona Christi Capitis (in the person of Christ, the Head) and to gather her in the Holy Spirit through the Gospel and Sacraments".

15 "Inadmissibility of Women to Ministerial Priesthood", Origins 25 (1995): 401.

16 Sess. IV (1546), DS 1501. Cf. "Tradition and Women's Ordination: A Question of Criteria", Origins 26 (June 27, 1966): 90-94, at 92. This document, drafted for the Catholic Theological Society of America, identifies the criteria, but argues that the teaching does not fulfill them. Prominent among the reasons it supplies is "the evidence that in former times the belief that women should not be priests was based largely on a human conviction regarding the natural inferiority of their sex". (93)

17 Recall that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (art. 2) quotes Pope Paul VI as saying that Christ gave the Church her theological anthropology. In addition, article 3 has two paragraphs on the presence and witness of women in the Church.

18 This is traced in my article, "Women's Ordination and the Development of Doctrine", The Thomist 61 (October 1997): 501-24.

19 See The Ordination of Women to the Priesthood, a Second Report by the House of Bishops of the General Synod of the Church of England (London: General Synod of the Church of England, June 1988). See my analysis in "The Ordination of Women: A New Obstacle to the Recognition of Anglican Orders", Anglican Theological Review 78 (Winter 1996): 96-113; also published in Anglican Orders: Essays on the Centenary of Apostolicae Curae 1896-1996, ed. R. William Franklin (London: Mowbray and Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1996), 96-113.

20 For more on this, see Guy Mansini, "On Affirming a Dominical Intention of a Male Priesthood", The Thomist 61 (1997): 301-16.

21 These questions are dealt with in detail by the Church of England bishops' report, pp. 21-72.

22 Many of its positive features are developed by Benedict M. Ashley in Justice in the Church: Gender and Participation (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996): 89-111.

23 See The Ordination of Women to the Priesthood, arts. 60-66, and Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1992) 154-55.

24 The reader is again referred to Benedict M. Ashley's Justice in the Church, Appendix I, pp. 169-88.

25 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World", May 31, 2004.

Sister Sara Butler, MSBT, teaches dogmatic theology at St. Joseph's Seminary (Dunwoodie) in the Archdiocese of New York. From 1984-1992, she served on a panel of women consultants to the Bishops' Committee on Women during a failed effort to produce a "women's pastoral". Though once an advocate of the ordination of women, her views changed dramatically during this time.

In March 2004, she was appointed to the International Theological Commission, whose members advise the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on doctrinal problems. She is one of the first two women to be named to the ITC.

Sister Sara has been a Missionary Servant of the Most Blessed Trinity since 1956. She taught 14 years at Chicago's Mundelein Seminary, and is a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. She addressed the Women for Faith & Family conference in 1998.

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